Here’s the Keynote speech by Cory Doctorow at the 28c3 conference in Berlin which posits a future war between platform appliances and general purpose computers. Quite an extensive keynote – which all good keynotes should be – which raises questions about what to do with the information at hand, rather than severely dominate the conference with information.
In essence, Doctorow argues that the war on copyright was nothing short of a tease, or a mini-boss in a narrative video game. The real fight on our hands comes from what he sees as the coming war on the general purpose computer. It’s easy to see this already happening now; iPhones do not sufficiently qualify as being general purpose, in the sense that IOS’s function is to deliberately cleanse any exterior insecurities, and command code through its own ‘regime of security’. It’s purpose is not to act as a general purpose computer (even though it is a general purpose computer), but an appliance which has an inbuilt, out of the box specific function which favours the proprietor. A general purpose computer (or a universal Turing machine in it’s original formulation) is a flexible machine, one can can takes on a fixed structure, which in effect can execute any computable function any specific machine can do.
I think Doctorow makes a good summary of whats going on which is more complex than simple resistance. I’m not sure framing the talk as a ‘war’ makes good on the complexity of the situation at hand. However he has valid points. The usual critical reply that accompanies this dichotomy of struggle aims to make light of the hypocritical nature of an iPhone user continuously launching apps from his/her device without any knowledge of the chains they encapsulate; whilst moaning about it at the same time (to the point of jailbreaking it when it doesn’t do the things we want). But the larger point here is the obvious one, iPhone’s work and they work really well and render daily life quite simple, Facebook is really good at what it does, Twitter is really good at allowing quick access into what’s going on, a Kindle really delivers online books quickly (or it’s supposed to). The point is, humans are very good at being sanguine about this sort of thing.
There are two points here:
1.) Doctorow understands this as not making the situation easier, but in realising that we cannot blame ourselves for being hypocrites. Appliances are fantastically functional for a bunch of specific tasks, which the infrastructure of the Western world commands. But as he argues, this only builds up the chance for a high fall and with dire consequences than ever; complete leaks of personal information, wasted money on music and video formats which fail to work if the device goes under.
2.) The structure of general purpose computation is more significant than I think Doctorow lets on. He identifies the purpose of the talk in order to issue a ‘5 year plan’ on what to do when the shit really hits the fan. The issue is about sophistication, duration and execution. If time isn’t an issue, and material contingent elements didn’t factor into runtime, a Turing complete machine is the most sophisticated machine available, no matter what device or appliance it comes in (there are infinite types of course) – it completely depends on what input your give it according what output comes out. Political interventions on the Web are only as sophisticated as the machines they execute on, and this potentially means that we’ve already exceeded that limit (that’s if, as Doctorow makes out, proprietary companies intend on making them less sophisticated in the future against public intervention).